The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office is creating a unit dedicated to examining wrongful-conviction claims, joining a small but growing number of prosecutorial agencies around the country that are devoting resources to identify innocent prisoners.
Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey is asking county supervisors for nearly $1 million to fund the new team, which would include three prosecutors, an investigator and a paralegal.
In seeking the funds, Lacey’s office said it wanted to keep up with an increasing number of wrongful-conviction claims that have followed the advent of similar units around the country as well as a growing number of innocence projects and increased publicity of innocence claims, said county spokesman Dave Sommers.
“This is exactly what should happen in every district attorney’s office in America,” said Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project at the California Western School of Law in San Diego. “We all have the same goal: to make sure the right people are in prison.”
While such units are still rare, Los Angeles would join more than 15 district attorney offices around the country that have adopted similar teams, including Santa Clara County, Dallas County, Brooklyn and Manhattan, as well as the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, D.C.
Los Angeles’ proposal remained largely under wraps until last week, when Lacey addressed a group of attorneys and students at Loyola Law School on Friday and mentioned she had been promised funding for a conviction review unit. She gave no details and did not return calls for comment.
A district attorney’s spokeswoman declined to discuss the plan until after the Board of Supervisors formally approves the funding in the coming weeks. The county’s recommended budget includes money for the unit for the next fiscal year, which starts in July.
The proposal comes after Los Angeles County has seen a string of high-profile exonerations in recent years.
Last month, the city of Los Angeles agreed to pay more than $8 million to Obie Anthony, who was declared factually innocent by a judge after spending 17 years behind bars for a killing outside a brothel in South Los Angeles.
In October, a judge threw out the murder conviction of Susan Mellen, saying she was wrongfully imprisoned for 17 years based on the word of a “habitual liar” and that “the criminal justice system failed.”
A year earlier, another judge threw out Kash Delano Register’s conviction in the 1979 murder of an elderly man in West Los Angeles.
All three cases were brought to court by innocence projects. In Mellen’s case, the district attorney’s office agreed to her release after its habeas corpus litigation team conducted an investigation of her lawyer’s allegations. The team is often involved in opposing legal requests by prisoners to throw out their convictions.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said he expects that a new conviction review unit would help people of color, who he said are wrongfully convicted at disproportionately high rates.
“It sends the message to law enforcement officers that trumped-up charges will not work,” he said. “It’s another dimension of checks and balances in the criminal justice system, which I think is sorely needed.”
In order to “really ferret out injustice,” a wrongful-conviction unit would need some autonomy from the rest of the office, said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and founding director of Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent, which represented Register.
“There is a natural inclination,” she said, “to not want to believe that your colleagues convicted an innocent person.”
The creation of such a team in the biggest county in the state would set a precedent that could help reshape California’s criminal justice system, Levenson said.
“I think L.A. could be real leaders,” she said.
But Barry Scheck, co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project, said that setting up a unit won’t necessarily translate into meaningful change or exonerations.
“There are lots of people who can say, ‘Oh gee, I have a conviction integrity unit,’ because that’s now the necessary fashion accessory,” Scheck said.
To be successful, Scheck said, Los Angeles County should look for someone with “a different way of looking at the cases” — like a former defense attorney — to lead the unit. The other key, he said, is fostering robust relationships between prosecutors and defense lawyers in which neither side expects to be “sandbagged.”
“It’s no longer an adversarial relationship,” he said. “It’s a joint search for the truth.”
Forgoing an antagonistic view toward the defense has worked well for prosecutors in Brooklyn’s conviction review unit, said Ron Sullivan, a Harvard Law professor who designed and implemented the unit, which has helped exonerate 13 people since it began in 2014.
In October, the office moved to throw out murder convictions against David McCallum and Willie Stuckey after concluding that their confessions were false. McCallum spent nearly three decades in prison and Stuckey died behind bars.
In another case, Jonathan Fleming was freed last year after the conviction review unit discovered a hotel receipt that supported his alibi: He’d been in Florida at the time of a 1989 murder. The unit is currently reviewing dozens of convictions in cases worked by former New York City police detective Louis Scarcella, whose investigative tactics have come under attack.
Sullivan said a big part of putting the unit in place was creating “a new ethos in the office” and reinforcing the “notion of prosecutors doing justice instead of trying to get convictions.”
article by Marisa Gerber via latimes.com